Following the NewLabour Party’s (NLP) 1990 general election campaign, some type of post-election evaluation period was made inevitable by the rushed nature of the pre-election preparations and the less than hoped for election result. The party finally had real time to take stock and for some to take a broader view of the direction of the party as an organisation and a political force. The post-election period was therefore a time for members to consider some fundamentals of the party: structure, organisation, political and activist orientation, and the decision-making process. [Read more below]
Some party activists left or scaled down their involvement in the party. Chris Trotter, for example, resigned almost immediately after the election, claiming that ‘the NLP was doomed as it was not a party of the times’ (Parussini, 1990: p.9). Certainly in terms of public perception, Trotter was quite correct — the party had indeed failed to project itself as being beyond an ideologically old-fashioned materialist party.
Others in the party, like Anderton group member Barry Gribben, did not want to see any radical change of direction: ‘We shouldn’t be panicked by this result into reorientating our political principles! In the next few years, soaring unemployment and deepening recession will make NewLabour’s balanced approach to economic development and the environment increasingly attractive to voters’ (Gribben, 1991: p.2).
the pre-election rush to formulate policy and find candidates meant some concerns were not addressed. “I think what some people want is decisions emanating from local groups more, and that will eventuate,” Mr Amos said. “People want decisions made at a lower level with a lot more local input than the traditional party structures allow for” (Parussini, 1990: p.9).
However, despite Amos’ reforming intentions, the 1991 annual conference that followed the general election further centralised the party constitution. The policy making process was completely revised, with a smaller and more centralised
Manifesto Committee of the National Council replacing the [former policy] commissions. Two representatives on the Manifesto Committee are directly elected by conference, with up to 6 appointed by the council. The Leader and President are ex-officio members (NLP, 1991b: p.2).
When revising the party structure, Amos believed that conference delegates had to take heed of the fact that the ‘NLP constitution should be flexible enough to facilitate working with the [proposed] Alliance’ (NLP, 1991b: p.1). Thus, yet another exigency emerged, providing justification for a more centralised party structure.
Calls for a name change
Changing the party’s name had become an issue for many in the social liberals and radical left elements of the NLP. As party president, Phil Amos took up the call of these groups, by advocating the need for a ‘new image, new policies, new name’ (Amos, 1991, p.1). On the issue of the party’s name, Amos argued that it was an unnecessary barrier to the organisation’s advance:
From the birth of the Party and up to the election, there were probably more pluses than minuses in the present name — former members of the Labour Party found the transition to NewLabour easy and were able to identify with it. However, for those who were new to party politics or had come from other parties, there were negative factors. For them, the image of NewLabour was modelled on the old NZLP, and people from it were felt to be bringing their ‘baggage’ with them. Since the general election there have been increased calls for a name change, many stating that the name ‘Labour’ was an electoral disaster (Amos, 1991, pp.1,2).
Jim Anderton led the fight, on behalf of the labourites for the retention of the name. His arguments were largely pragmatic. Apart from the ‘financial investment’ that would be lost, Anderton argued that a change of name would indicate uncertainty, thereby jeopardising public confidence in the party:
Whether we like it or not, the NewLabour Party is the name by which we are now known, and it would be utterly confusing to the voting public if we decided to call ourselves something else. The attitude would be, quite rightly in my view, that we can’t make up our own minds who we are. We would destroy familiarity and acceptance of our name at our peril. The name NewLabour is now well accepted in the political arena. People are becoming more and more familiar with it and we are often now just called the NLP which means we are getting to the stage where the word Labour does not even come into the name (Anderton, 1991a: p.2).
Despite some strong arguments in favour of a name change, there were no obvious and popular alternatives. ‘Progressives’ was the proposed replacement of Amos — which probably reflected his social liberal sympathies. However, there appeared to be no calls for the NLP to adopt the name ‘Workers Labour Party’, which had had radical left support at the time of the party’s foundation. At the 1991 February National Council meeting the question of a new name was effectively laid to rest.
The nature of the struggle over the name change was indicative of the process of the post-election re-evaluation inside the NLP. While it reflected the widespread desire within the party to reconsider fundamentals, the failure of the attempt to change the name reflected the new power relationships inside the party. First, it illustrated the reduced influence of the social liberals and the collapse of the radical left — the labourites now had an even stronger hold. Second, it showed that decisions made about the NLP in the formative period had by this stage become firmly set. Thirdly, it indicated that the important decisions were, in effect, being made very much at the top level of the organisation.
Shifting the political direction of the party
The decision to retain the name NewLabour Party was also in line with the fact that there was no huge overhaul of the party’s organisational structure. However, there was some momentum to shift the political direction of the party. This materialised in considerable debate, discussion and enthusiasm for the need to reorientate the party towards winning elections. Arguments were made about the need to expand the NLP’s electoral appeal now had evidence to back it up.
While the labourites had already succeeded in establishing that the NLP should be a parliamentary-focused social democratic party, the election result served the purpose of convincing this dominant tendency, including Anderton himself, of the need to expand the party’s electoral appeal — especially in terms of winning the progressive sections of the middle class. Many had seen the need for this from the party’s inception ‘but could not convince Anderton of the importance of green politics until the 1990 election results presented him with evidence he could not refute’ (Trotter, 1994b: p.21). The argument for the need to win the green vote was now self-evident. However, the NLP’s ability to claim the environmental vote had been greatly diminished by the emergence of the Green Party. The NLP looked unable to expand their potential electoral appeal, and this made it increasingly important to join up with other parties to gain wider electoral support.
Jesson understood the need to reach out beyond the labourist tradition and draw into Anderton’s orbit the followers of the new social movements (NSMs). The ‘post-industrial’ projects of the anti-racist, feminist, environmental and peace movements had in many ways superseded the socialist project which Labour-type parties were originally formed to carry through.... The election of the fourth Labour Government in 1984 owed much to their enthusiastic support (Trotter, 1992d: p.24).
Anderton, although previously uncomfortable with ‘this clean green touchy-feely stuff’, was now ready to take on Jesson’s arguments (Trotter, 1992d: p.24). Thus, while this particular strategy of broadening the NLP’s electoral base was not Anderton’s, he quickly became the major advocate of some sort of electoral pact or coalition with the other minor parties. Within a period of one year the NLP joined up in an electoral alliance with the Greens, Democrats, Mana Motuhake and later the Liberal Party, which was a National Party breakaway led by sitting MPs Gilbert Myles and Hamish McIntyre.
Next blog post: Formation of the Alliance